A badly needed, new icebreaker for the Coast Guard is at least six years from being commissioned, assuming Congress can come up with the money to build it, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said.
Even then, the heavy icebreaker that would replace the 42-year-old Polar Star would have the primary mission of busting ice at the South Pole, rather than patrolling the Arctic, where Russia and China aggressively have been making inroads, Schultz said during several appearances in December in Washington, D.C., aiming to rally support for the Coast Guard's budget and readiness initiatives.
"We need one now," Schultz said of the icebreaker, which would be classified as a "Polar Security Cutter." The $950 million that was included in the White House budget plan for the icebreaker has been held up in the House in the ongoing impasse over the Department of Homeland Security budget and those of other agencies as well as border wall funding.
On Monday, President Donald Trump suggested he is open to compromise to avoid a possible partial government shutdown at midnight on Friday.
In a tweet early Wednesday, Trump said again that the military would build the wall, although there is no funding in the Defense Department's budget for wall construction.
At a Navy League breakfast Dec. 14, and in a brief interview afterward with Military.com, Schultz said he expects Congress will restore funding for the new icebreaker.
"That's a big one for us," he said, but adding that it would be only a first step in building a fleet of six icebreakers -- three heavy and three medium icebreakers.
Schultz said he expects a contract for the first new icebreaker to be issued in spring 2019, but added that it would take six years from contract award "to splashing that ship."
The Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and "is tired," he said.
The Coast Guard currently operates the 399-foot Polar Star, which recently left Seattle for Antarctica for its annual mission to keep open the sea-lanes to the U.S. scientific base on McMurdo Sound, and the 420-foot medium icebreaker Healy, which was commissioned in 2000, and performs scientific missions and icebreaking duties in the Arctic.
The Polar Star is able to continue running partly due to the fact that its sister ship, the Polar Sea, which was commissioned in 1978, suffered a complete failure of most of its diesel engines in 2010 and now is used as a parts donor for the Polar Star.
Polar Star is capable of breaking through six feet of ice at 3 to 4 knots, and can break through 21 feet of ice by backing and ramming. The Healy can break through about 4 feet of ice at 3 to 4 knots and 8 feet of ice when backing and ramming, Schultz said.
The commandant said the first new polar security cutter will be the replacement for Polar Star and would make the annual sojourn to McMurdo Sound.
"It's not until you get to hulls two and three" of the proposed fleet of six that "you really start to craft some presence for the Arctic mission," he said.
Even assuming that the Coast Guard eventually receives six new icebreakers, the U.S. fleet would still be dwarfed by Russia's fleet, which has nearly 50 icebreakers, according to the U.S. Navy.
In June, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis began noting the growing presence of Russia in the Arctic region and has stressed the need for a U.S. response.
"Certainly, America's got to up its game in the Arctic. There's no doubt about that," Mattis said.
The Coast Guard is expected to play a major role in the mission, he said in June at Eielson Air Force Base during a refueling stop on a trip to Asia.
Schultz told Military.com that Alaskan officials are lobbying the Navy to establish a base at a deep water port in the state to counter the growing Russian and Chinese naval presence in the region.
A Navy base in the Arctic "certainly would be of benefit to our ability to deploy capability up there," Schultz said, but "in the interim period, our thinking right now is sea-based operations. That's probably for the foreseeable future."
Last week, at a joint hearing of the Senate subcommittees on Sea Power, and Readiness and Management, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said he wants to boost the Navy's presence in the Arctic but lacks the funding to do it.
"Our Russian friends are warming up five airstrips and 10,000 Spetsnaz [special forces] troops for quote/unquote 'search and rescue.' The Chinese are up there. Everybody is up there" in the Arctic, Spencer said.
Added Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska: "Everybody but us."
Spencer responded, "We are up there under the sea and in the air," adding that the Navy is seeking to identify potential deep water ports in Alaska that could accommodate Navy ships.
"If I had a blank check for everything, it would be terrific to ice-harden ships but, with the demand we have right now, it is unaffordable," he said. "We need to get up there. I can commit to the fact that we're trying to figure out how we do ... that."
In the meantime, the open waters in the Arctic continue to expand as the polar ice cap diminishes.
For nearly two decades, the Coast Guard has sounded the alarm that the melting ice in the Arctic has created new and vast stretches of open water that require a U.S. presence.
The Coast Guard's Arctic Strategy for 2013 noted that, in 2012, "we observed the lowest sea ice extent in recorded history," adding that "there are vast areas of open water where there used to be ice."
Commercial operations are expanding to "the most remote reaches of Alaska" and small cruise ships are venturing farther north, the 2013 strategy noted.
The 2018 "Arctic Report Card" released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stressed the continuing rapid decline in Arctic sea ice.
The report said the Arctic region "experienced the second-warmest air temperatures ever recorded; the second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage; lowest recorded winter ice in the Bering Sea; and earlier plankton blooms due to early melting of sea ice in the Bering Sea."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.